Deck with a view

Use paving, plants, and garden art to create the "panorama" on a city lot
Sharon Cohoon

Small space and a modest budget shouldn't stop you from having a great backyard. So says Brian Sullivan, horticultural supervisor for Descanso Gardens.

When Sullivan and Alex Flores moved into their home near South Pasadena, the 736-square-foot backyard was mostly lawn: "Too small and sloping to be at all useful," Sullivan says.

Now the space has an elegant Mangaris wood deck sheltered by a redwood arbor and overlooking a wide, terraced path flanked by lush planting beds. Sullivan spent approximately $8,000 on the project, including $7,000 for materials and labor for the deck (he installed the path himself). The risers, which support the terracing, are cemented in place, but the flat flagstone pieces are merely set in sand. This approach saved cost and labor, and allows Sullivan to change the contours of the landscaping beds should some new planting scheme require it.

"Considering the nature of my job," he says, "I knew I needed to build in that flexibility."

Four great ideas from this garden

1. Design for comfort. Much as he loves plants, Sullivan allotted 222 square feet for the deck, which he furnished for dining and lounging.

2. Use sweat equity for tasks in your comfort zone, and delegate the rest. Sullivan never considered building the deck or arbor himself. "Since neither Alex nor I had any woodworking experience, the potential for costly mistakes seemed way too high," he says.

3. Squeeze two seasons into one space. When elephant's ear starts looking ratty in late winter, Sullivan cuts it to the ground ― just in time for calla lilies to emerge.

4. Limit the palette. The Sullivan/Flores home is painted grayish green (a color that harmonizes with all foliage hues) and has cream and reddish-brown trim. The red flagstone and bronze coleus pick up one of the trim colors, while variegated foliage echoes the other.